Once again Louis Jordaan of Minwater Eco Adventures put his bakkie in neutral, jumped out of the cab and darted off into the Klein Karoo veldt like a klipspringer.
“Come on Dale” he shouted over his shoulder as I struggled with the passenger door “Just over here we have a wonderful example of a variegated Aloe hiding under this shrub.”
I couldn’t see it of course, but then again I’m not Louis Jordaan, one of the world’s most knowledgeable people on the plants of the succulent Karoo.
“It’s a wonderful specimen” he told me from his hands and knees position “Come on in and take a closer look,” And so, I rolled up my sleeves, got on all fours and stuck my head into the shrubbery.
“Now can you see it?” he asked “It’s not easy. This is one of those well camouflaged succulents which are very hard to spot. But that’s the whole point you see. Hungry antelope or the likes will not find this plant. They can search all they want.”
And there, at the tip of his pointing finger, concealed amongst the shadows of the bush in which we were congregated, I finally saw the pretty little plant which Louis had seen from thirty meters away whilst driving.
“And now that we are down here” he continued “Let me explain to you a little about nurse plants and the way they take care of many other smaller succulents by offering them, amongst other things, protection from the sun.”
And so, there we stayed for the next fifteen minutes, kneeling upon the rocky terrain with our bums in the air and our heads in a bush whilst Louis pointed out a plethora of tiny little plants that would have been all but invisible to me if it were not for his eagle eye and encyclopedic knowledge.
“I am rather taken by succulents” he later told me as we continued our 4×4 tour around the Minwater property; a 1500 hectare slice of Klein Karoo in the Gamka mountains close to Oudtshoorn. “And every day I am here I become more fascinated by them. One never stops learning when one takes an interest in nature”
And a keen interest it most certainly was, for Luis Jordan has been fascinated in nature (especially plants) ever since he was a little lad in shorts.
“For many years, I was a legal prosecutor living with my wife and children in the city. But I grew up in the bush, you see, and I knew that was the better place to be. My father’s family owned Minwater and other property in the area and so I used to come here all the time for holidays when I was young. That’s when I started learning about the plants that live here. My father was a very knowledgeable man you see and I did so love to be out in the veldt with him”
Later in life, Louis brought Minwater from his uncle and moved his wife and two children there and began farming with ostriches and goats. It was a much more enjoyable life than practicing law in the city, especially so because his back garden was now the succulent filled wonderland that he used to explore as a child.
With a view to encouraging people to enjoy the outdoors more, Louis quickly set about developing some 4×4 trails and a bush camp on his property. But he soon came to realize that the people who visited were not only interested in off road driving and braais…
“No matter who they were, they all seemed to enjoy hearing my stories about the plants and the animals here, and before long I found myself conducting specialized floral tours. I now have people visit me from all over the world, and we also host school programs at least once a year. It all gives me a great deal of pleasure to see people enjoying nature in this way”
Throughout the course of the day, Louis’s regaled me with tale after tale about the plants upon his property; and by the end of the tour, I had become so infected with his enthusiasm that I too was rushing around here and there, poking my head into bushes, and peering between the cracks in the rocks to find out what was living there.
To the uninitiated, the Succulent Karoo can appear to be a bit drab at first; a scrubby barren landscape of unremarkable brown bushes, but once Louis opens your eyes to all the tiny little things under your feet , it is suddenly transformed into a wonderland of fantastical life forms.
“This is my absolute favorite” he told me, as we crouched over a strange looking knobby thing surrounded by a halo of twigs “It’s called the shimmering star bush”
And with that, he gently blew upon it; causing pieces of the plant’s little brown flowers to shimmy and shuffle this way and that.
“It looks just as if it is covered in ants, don’t you think?”
And indeed it did.
“Now imagine if you were a butterfly’ he continued “would you want to lay your eggs in an ant nest?”
No, I don’t suppose I would.
I learned a lot from Louis that day, such as the fact that the succulent karoo biome is one of the most unique desert like environments on the planet; due to the fact that it harbors a profusion of life. In fact, it’s a biodiversity hotspot accommodating somewhere in the region of 6000 plant species, 40% of which are found nowhere else on earth.
There is an abundance of geophytes (bulbed plants) which turn the veldt into an exuberant fireworks display of colour when it is time for them to flower, and there are mosses and colorful lichens galore. But as its name suggests, it’s the succulents that make the succulent karoo so special.
And so then, what exactly is a succulent….?
Well, in a nut shell, it is a type of plant that has juicy bits such as swollen leaves or stems that are able to store water. Sounds delicious doesn’t it? – A tempting treat indeed for a thirsty bunny, buck or baboon. And if their names are anything to go by (Butter tree; Milk bush; Glass of water; Bacon tree; Kebab bush) then one would expect to have feast out there. But the truth is, most of them are poisonous and are no more edible than slug pellets.
“You really must know your plants well if you are not to make yourself very ill” said Louis whilst handing me a leaf to chew on “But there are things out here that you can make a meal from, and many have medicinal uses too”
“That one you are eating now. It’s called spekboom- tastes a bit like a lemon doesn’t it? It actually one of the most effective removers of carbon dioxide from the air, and is even able to do that at night! The carbon dioxide is stored in an acid form in the leaves until the sun is shining and the process of photosynthesis can proceed. The acid is then transformed back to carbon dioxide and is used to photosynthesize. That is why it is better to eat spekboom later in the day as it will be far less bitter”
I also learned that the threat of being eaten pales in comparison to the hardships these plants must overcome in order to survive the burning karoo sun, but once again, Mother Nature has been kind enough to bestow upon them an enormous arsenal of excellent defenses.
Some are covered in fuzzy fur giving the appearance that they are trying to keep warm. But the hairs in fact act like a sun block by casting shadows over the plant’s delicate flesh. Spikes (a common feature amongst many succulents) also do the same job. There are also ice plants that protect themselves with a coat of salty bubbles and there are plants that open and close little windows to the sun.
Their designs and defenses are as varied as the plants are themselves, and Louis Jordaan seems to know about every single one of them.
I could have spent a whole week at Minwater with Louis as my guide to show me his secret world of wonderful plants. But alas, eventually I had to bid farewell to the toddler’s toes, lizard’s skins, scrub hare’s balls, goose feet, pigs ears and the dog wee bushes (karoo plants one and all) and head back into the real world of traffic lights and shopping malls. But I think I took a little bit of Jordaan’s passion with me, and now (courtesy of the local garden centre) my windowsills and flower beds are brimming full of succulents.
To find out more about visiting Minwater….
TEL : +27 (0) 44 279 1285
CELL : +27 (0) 82 481 3625
EMAIL : firstname.lastname@example.org
WEBSITE : www.minwater.co.za